AWilderness of Error, a new true crime mini-series which recently aired on FX and is now available on Hulu, has committed some unforgivable sins against the viewer and it’s not ok. Warning: spoilers abound.
Wilderness presents the once high-profile story of Jeffrey MacDonald, a man convicted of murdering his wife and two young children in 1970. That murder was chronicled in a 1983 book, Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision. That book was made into a television mini-series of the same name in 1984. If I knew about the trial, the book, or the mini-series, I had forgotten it. As a document of that cycle, Wilderness succeeds in its first three of five episodes. Its sin is that it attempts to gird up another two hours of mini-series by pointing to a single hitch to this well-tread territory: Errol Morris has doubts.
The mini-series is shot in a similar manner to Morris’ seminal true-crime docu-drama The Thin Blue Line. Tantalizingly abstract re-enactments abound throughout the series, with video and audio clips of Morris weaved throughout. As it carries on, you let yourself believe it might be an Errol Morris production. By the time the series is stringing you along, intimating that it may have new information to offer on a closed case by gesturing to Morris’ unspoken doubts, you believe it may have something real up its sleeve. Why? Morris’ cred, of course.
“What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality?” Morris earnestly puts the question to the audience in the show’s opening credit sequence. He’s suggesting that the narrative offered in the Fatal Vision mini-series is a kind of easily digestible falsehood, and the trial that it chronicles a dereliction of justice. In turn, he’s offering a thesis for the series he’s appearing in. As it disappointingly turns out, the only twist the show offers in its final two episodes is Morris’ self-depreciating assessment of his own failure of veracity in his book A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, which gives the series its name.
This is a highly provocative turn for a true crime docuseries. As our guru of veracity, Morris outs himself as being just as susceptible to problematic narrative thinking as any of us (although this is a tough sell, it’s perhaps the only conclusion to be drawn from the fact of Morris’ involving himself in the case after the series shows all its cards). Morris’ success in securing the release of Randall Adams, the wrongfully convicted subject of The Thin Blue Line, is too off-handedly offered as the origin story for the monster at the center of A Wilderness of Error: Errol himself. Does he want to believe the MacDonald case was a raw deal so that he may play the part of hero-filmmaker again? If the show had made this the foundation of its second half it could have spun the series into very interesting territory. Instead, it spends its time following cold leads and ultimately presents its most provocative and interesting twist as a kind of cheap “gotcha” moment. It traffics in the cult of Errol without digging deeper into its own intriguing thesis.
Frustrations aside, it must be said that Wilderness offers a decent distillation of the facts of the case, and a highly provocative turn for a docuseries. There are so many layers of framing here: A docuseries that re-frames a book that reframes a mini-series that chronicles the trial of a man who builds his own narrative to avoid punishment. Perhaps if Morris wasn’t the subject, he could have been the filmmaker. And, we may have gotten a series that was as thought-provoking as it was purporting to be.
P.S. Speaking of documentary heavyweights, I watched the film Grey State on Netflix this past week as well—this one on the strength of a Werner Herzog executive producer credit. A well-made, compelling, and comparatively understated doc about another dude who killed his family. And, a less complicated success. | Mike McCubbins